Boundary Violations between Prison Staff and Inmates: The “Orange is the New Black” Effect

Every semester, I teach an Ethics and Criminal Justice course for our Criminal Justice minor. Several semesters ago, I revised my final exam to include the following prompt:

You are a corrections officer at minimum security prison camp. You discover that one of your co-workers has been having a romantic and sexual relationship with one of the prisoners for six months. You know this is against the rules, and that both the inmate and your co-worker will face serious consequences for engaging in an inappropriate relationship. If you blow the whistle on your co-worker, she will lose her job and could be criminally charged.

Following the prompt, I asked students two questions. 1) Is it more important to be loyal to your fellow officer or to be a whistleblower? Why? And, 2) what do you think is the right thing to do in this situation? Why?

Over the course of the past three semesters, 91 students have responded to this exam question. I recently revisited all of the exam responses. For the second question concerning what students believed was the right thing to do, the responses fell into four categories: do nothing (20%); talk to your co-worker and try to persuade her to stop the relationship (7%); talk to your co-worker and tell her if she does not stop the relationship and/or turn herself in; you will report her behavior to the administration (24%); and, finally, half of students (50%) believed that automatically turning your co-worker in was the right thing to do.

Prior to revisiting these exam responses, I would have estimated that the number of students who believed reporting their co-worker’s behavior was the right thing to do was much lower than it actually was. I think this was due in part to my surprise that so many students did not think this was a major or serious violation by prison staff.

For example, close to 30% of student respondents believed the right thing to do was to not report the behavior under any circumstance. Across responses, students failed to comprehend the inherent harm embedded in a sexual relationship between prison staff and an inmate. In fact, one response proceeded along the lines of (paraphrase) “I would check to make sure the inmate isn’t being harmed. If they were being harmed I would report, but as long as there is no danger to the inmate, I would do nothing.”

There are a number of reasons why an inappropriate relationship between a staff member and an inmate are harmful, both to the inmate and to facility security, even if both participants are seemingly willing to engage in a sexual relationship. Aside from the unique harms of these relationships in the prison context, it is clearly a violation of professional decency, just as a sexual relationship between a professor and student, or a counselor and patient are patently unprofessional.

Before discussing the problems with sexual relationships between staff and inmates, I think it is important to speculate why students (and perhaps many other members of the community) do not recognize the potential dangers these relationships pose. I would attribute much of these attitudes to media depictions of prison life, specifically, Orange is the New Black. In this extremely popular Netflix show, one of the central storylines involves a romantic and sexual relationship between a female inmate, Dayanara Diaz, and a corrections officer, John Bennett. Interestingly, the relationship between Diaz and Bennett is presented as one of the more genuine and romantic relationships among the plethora of sexual and romantic encounters depicted in the show. The fact that one is the keeper and the other is the kept is simply presented as a minor obstacle for these star-crossed lovers to overcome. Because the show is so popular among my students, and because it really fails to highlight the major problems of a relationship of this type, I would anecdotally attribute (at least part of) the distribution of exam responses to the influence of this show.

Far from being harmless infatuation or romance, inappropriate sexual relationships, or, as Marquart and colleagues (2001) term them, boundary violations, have serious consequences, both for incarcerated individuals and for prison operations. It is important to recognize that I am exclusively discussing relationships where inmates are seemingly willing participants (note, I have not used the words consent or consensual in regards to these relationships). The harms surrounding forcible sexual assaults perpetrated by staff against inmates are much more clearly understood.

First, the relationship between captor and captive is inherently coercive. The power differential between guards and inmates has serious implications regarding the legitimate capacity of prisoners to consensually engage in a sexual relationship. Correctional officers have ultimate control over inmates’ access to food, water, and every other basic resource, creating a situation in which inmates may not be able to easily refuse sexual advances by corrections officers.

In addition, once sexual activity is initiated, prisoners may not have the freedom or ability to stop specific sexual acts, or to stop the sexual encounter should they wish to do so. For example, in 2009, an Oklahoma prisoner told a corrections officer about her sexual fantasy of being with two men at the same time. The officer and one of his co-workers then entered her cell, and they began to have sex. When the female prisoner was finished, she stood up to end the encounter, but one of the guards forced her head back down and told her to “shut up, and bend over, bitch” (Hogan, 2015).

Inmates may also feel coerced into sexual relationships with staff in exchange for resources that are or may be limited by corrections officers. Conversely, prison guards can take advantage of inmates who want access to resources or favorable treatment by staff (Marcum and Castle, 2014). Thus, what appears to be voluntary sexual encounters may actually be coercive and threatening. This can lead to feelings of powerlessness and helplessness among inmates, even in contexts broader than the relationship, such as institutional disciplinary decisions or other disputes between staff and inmates (Blackburn, et al., 2011).

On the other hand, voluntary sexual relationships between staff and inmates also pose potential security risks to facilities as well. As most prison systems forbid sex between staff and inmates, once an officer and inmate are involved in a relationship, the inmate can blackmail the officer for things they may want. Instances of corrections officers bringing in cell phones, drugs, weapons, and other contraband items because of sexual relationships have all been documented (Dial & Worley, 2008). One of the more recent and prominent examples involved a prison staff member in New York who developed a romantic relationship with an inmate. Staff member Joyce Mitchell smuggled in a drill bit and a hack saw that allowed inmates Matt Smith and David Sweat to escape. Smith and Sweat were on the run for 22 days in June of 2015. Sweat was eventually recaptured, but Smith was shot and killed by border patrol agents.

Most, if not all correctional departments, have strict regulations against sexual relationships between staff and inmates, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) establishes these relationships as criminal acts on the part of prison workers. Most cases of inappropriate relationships simply end in the termination of prison staff (Dial & Worley, 2011); however, criminal convictions and prison sentences are not unheard of, especially in high profile cases. Joyce Mitchell, for example, may serve up to seven years in prison for her role in the escape described above.

Because of the concerns related to inmate well-being and facility security, prison administrators should recognize the harms involved and seriously respond to all instances and allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships. It may be prudent to consider expanding criminal prosecutions of staff members who engage in sexual relationships with inmates.

In addition, media depictions of staff-inmate sex as romantic and charming should be countered at every opportunity, in an academic setting or otherwise. The exam questions described above are contained on the final exam, and thus, I do not have the opportunity to discuss and unpack student responses in class. However, revisiting these exams underscores the responsibility that I, and other criminal justice educators, have to highlight the harms inherent in staff-inmate sexual relationships about which there may be little awareness.

Benjamin Meade, PhD
Justice Studies Department
James Madison University

Blackburn, A.G., Fowler, S.K., Mullings, J.L., & Marquart, J.W. (2011). When boundaries are broken: Inmate perceptions of correctional staff boundary violations. Deviant Behavior, 32(4), 351-378.

Dial, K., & Worley, R.M. (2008). Crossing the line: A quantitative analysis of inmate boundary violators in a Southern prison system. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 33, 69-84.

Hogan, M.J. (2015). If Orange is the New Black, is coercion the new consent? An analysis of the Tenth Circuit’s decision to allow guards to use an inmate’s alleged consent as a defense to a sexual abuse allegation. Washburn Law Journal, 54(2), 425-450.

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